Planting in Summer?

Planting in fall or early spring is always your best bet…but what if you get a potted plant in summer? Should you wait until fall to plant it?

We are told repeatedly to plant either in the fall or early spring in desert areas (I myself encourage this in my classes and lectures). Summer planting is to be avoided like the plague. But what do we do if we end up getting a plant just before summer, or worse yet, in the middle of summer? Should we plant that potted specimen during a heat wave, or keep it in its pot until fall when the air is cooler, the soil is cooler, and the sun is less intense? This can be a gut-wrenching decision for gardeners who want to do the right thing, but worry about subjecting their new plant to either the ravages of the extreme heat and intense sun if planted in the ground in summer, or to the poor prospects of a plant surviving a desert summer in a black pot with hot roots and wet soil. Hmmm…which is harder on a young plant: hot soil in the ground or hot soil in a pot?

Black pots heat up fast in the sun, and hot roots are never happy roots. Even worse for our southwest native plants are excessively hot, wet roots–often resulting in root rot and death.

I have had this discussion with many of my gardening friends who are experts…those who are professional nursery growers themselves. They all wince when they think about planting in summer in the desert, but they tend to agree that of the two bad choices, the best option is to go ahead and put the plant into the ground, installing a special protective shield for the plant during summer plantings.

We are advised to not plant in hot summer months for many reasons: plants require more water in their first and subsequent years when planted in summer instead of fall or spring, they may succumb to root rot if the soil is kept moist when the soil is very hot, and plants may grow slower than if they had been planted in fall or spring. However, there is a real danger of the plant not surviving the summer at all in a pot. All plants, but especially southwest native plants, hate for their roots to be hot if the soil is wet. Our native southwest plants are adapted to go dormant in summer when soils are dry, so their roots are used to being dry when it is hot. In a pot however, especially a black pot, the soil and roots heat up even more than if the plant were in the ground, and to compensate, we may have to water the plant almost daily to keep the roots from overheating and drying out beyond their tolerance. However, extremely hot, wet soils are a breeding ground for fungus and bacteria, which can proliferate in these conditions and overwhelm the roots to the point of root rot and sudden death.

Plant roots that are buried in the ground, even when exposed to the same air temperature as a potted plant nearby, are living in a soil environment that is not nearly as hot as the plant sitting next to it, but above-ground, in a pot. One way to lessen the impacts of this “black pot syndrome” is to put the black-potted plant into a bigger ceramic or non-black pot to shield the roots from the heat of the direct sun. This definitely helps, but I have still had some potted plants succumb to summer heat as I waited until fall to plant them. Our fall planting window in southern California usually this doesn’t arrive until the first of November–which is a long wait if you acquired a plant in summer.

If you plant in summer in the desert, install a shade screen on the sunny (south) side of your plant to provide day-long shade all summer.

If you have a potted plant you have adopted just as summer sets in, here is a suggestion for planting during the heat to give it the best chance of success: immediately after planting, install a shade barrier on the south (sunny) side of the plant using three stakes in a “V” shape, either made of wood, metal, or PVC pipe sections. Use stakes tall enough to cast a shade onto the entire plant. Onto these three stakes, attach shade cloth with either twist ties or a stapler, so the plant receives shade most of the day as the sun moves across it. Install the “V” middle-point as close as possible to the plant to give it as much shade as possible. Check your shade screen throughout the day to check its positioning, and pull the sides in closer if needed to cast shade onto your new planting. Do not put shade cloth over the plant, as the cloth will trap heat under it and heat up the plant even more. A large rock placed on the sunny (south) side of the plant also helps your plant to stay happier. The rock will shade the ground next to the roots, and retain moisture longer under it. The companion rock also helps to shade the plant, and can even encourage some dew to form and drip off the rock as cool night air condenses on the rock still warm from the day’s sun.

Figuring out how often to water a newly installed plant during summer is a delicate situation as well–too wet, and it rots; too dry, and it suffers. The root ball needs to be kept moist, but wet soil at the surface where soils are very hot can cause excessive growth of bacteria and harmful fungi, resulting in root rot and killing your plant. The soil needs to be kept moist about 3 inches below the surface, but keeping the soil continuously wet at the surface can be detrimental.  Checking soil moisture is helpful here: either use an inexpensive moisture meter (less that $9 at gardening stores), or you can use an old screwdriver to dig a small hole to a depth of about 2-3”. Check for moisture at the bottom of the hole. After watering, if no moisture has reached the bottom of your test hole, keep watering. Use a new hole to recheck moisture with your meter or hole after watering again. Allow the soil in the top 2-3 inches to dry out between watering the newly installed plant.

Moisture Meter-Basketbush Sumac-1062-web

Moisture meters are a great tool in helping you check soil moisture to determine when and how long to irrigate your plants. They are inexpensive and easy to use (and fun to use all around your yard to check soil moisture after you water).

I’m writing this article now because several months ago I decided to wait until fall to plant a very special native plant I have wanted for years–Yerba Santa, which a fellow botanist had gifted to me. It has been thriving for three months in the pot…that is until we had a 118 degree day in the midst of weeks of over 100 degree weather with extreme humidity. The Yerba Santa has taken a nose dive, even though I have had the pot itself shaded. I lament now not planting it even though summer was setting in when I received it, since I fear I have now lost the treasured plant. As a rule of thumb, plants that cannot tolerate wet soil during summer (which include some of our southwest native plants), should not be planted in summer even if the above measures are followed. Examples of these plants that hate summer water and need dry soils during summer include Ceanothus (California Lilac), Fremontodendron (Flannelbush),  Arctostaphylos (Manzanita), and Trichostema (Wooly Blue Curls). For this reason, the easiest plants to get established in the summer are those that can tolerate year-round moisture.

I’ll never know for certain if my Yerba Santa would have survived the heat in the ground during this excessive heat wave, but I know for sure it hated being in the pot as summer put its burning fangs around my tender plant. Hopefully these tips can help you can avoid this sad experience.

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Why to Leave Your Leaves

Fall leaves_Songbird Cottage porch_2038

Fall leaves descend on Songbird Cottage porch

Every fall, as our trees and shrubs begin preparing for their winter sleep, we watch leaves morph from green to yellow (or orange on our Basketbush Sumac and Japanese Maple). Soon after, each leaf lets go of its supporting branch and drifts down to earth. Piles of fallen leaves collect along our pathways, porches, and patios. But we don’t see this annual event as more work to do in the yard — because we never move the leaves any farther away than off the porches and decks with a broom. We know how valuable these leaves are to the health of our yard, and we are excited to watch the cycle of rebirth they are entering.

Fall color on California native shrub, Basketbush Sumac

Fall color on California native shrub, Basketbush Sumac

Plants that go dormant in winter are closing down the sugar factories before frost would freeze the water inside each leaf, which would cause cells to burst and lose all the hard-won nutrients inside — not to mention killing the leaf tissues. After sending all the precious sugars and nutrients from leaves down into the roots for winter storage, the branches snip off each leaf with a special acid, closing the door on the scar with a cork-like covering. You might think the role of the leaf is over, but it still has a vital task to perform for the plant — and for the landscape around it.

Just like a warm blanket against the cold, fallen leaves help to insulate the ground around plant roots from chilling weather. As the leaves slowly decompose, they liberate their remaining nutrients into the soil, while providing food for many beneficial fungi, bacteria, insects, and a host of tiny organisms. This team of soil creatures transforms the decaying leaves’ nutrients into usable food waiting for roots when their dormant plants wake up in spring. These soil magicians ultimately convert the dead leaves into valuable mulch, which helps to retain precious moisture in the soil throughout the coming dry seasons.

Both evergreen and deciduous plants benefit from a cover of fallen leaves blanketing the ground.

Both evergreen and deciduous plants benefit from a cover of fallen leaves blanketing the ground.

Fall leaves are an asset to future generations of your yard plants.

Fall leaves are an asset to future generations of your yard plants.

This important saga in the life-cycle of fallen leaves not only benefits deciduous plants (those that lose their leaves in winter), it also benefits nearby evergreen plants. Even though evergreens have mechanisms to withstand freezing (including a plant version of anti-freeze), evergreens profit from the work that deciduous leaves have accomplished in their death: contributing fertilizing nutrients, soil-insulating properties, and soil-moisture-saving paybacks. Evergreen and deciduous plants alike also benefit from the weed-deterring job carried out by a blanket of fallen leaves.

So the next time you think about hauling off your piles of fall leaves, remember the role these heroic leaves still want to achieve in your yard. Put down your rake, and enjoy the rhythm of the leaves.





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Cactus Wren Nest Building

Cactus wren with paper shred to line its nest in a cholla

Suddenly, all the wayward string, sticks, fibers, feathers, paper, and cushion stuffing have become hot commodities around our yard. Now that nest-building season has arrived, what was earlier considered debris has become treasure to the birds living throughout Songbird Cottage’s yard.

Verdin Nest in Wild Plum

Spiny fortress woven by Verdins in our Wild Plum, made from stems of the same plant, with the entrance hole at the bottom right side of the nest

The path-side, spiny trimmings from our wild plums (Ziziphus parryi, also known as Parry Abrojo) that we had temporarily set beside the pathway have now been picked over by a pair of industrious verdins, and incorporated into their nest – smack in the center of the thorny plant’s protection. How such a tiny bird could so adeptly weave spine-armored twigs into a tight, round nest is amazing…with only one spot left unwoven: the entrance hole at the very bottom of the whole heap. No predator would dare venture into this spiny castle.

The seat cushion on the porch with a small hole at its seam has just become deflated where the stuffing has been repeatedly pulled out to line the new nests of cactus wrens, antelope ground squirrels, and likely other mothers-to-be.

Not only are the birds doing their own housekeeping, they are helping us with ours. I was delighted to see an Anna’s hummingbird hovering at the top of our window outside, collecting spider webs in its long bill. Webs are the perfect cement to glue together all the insulating materials that hummingbirds gather to line their nest to keep mom and babies warm at night as she slips into her nightly torpor to conserve energy. It is vital that she captures her daytime body warmth in her nest at night, so she uses cobwebs to secure all the insulating leaves, lichens, cast feathers, and other cuddly treasures to make sure she and her brood get through the night.

Yucca leaves with fibers

Mojave Yucca leaves waiting for fiber collection

But the big mystery – the migrating yucca leaves on our back porch – has finally been solved. I had neatly stacked a bundle of trimmed Mojave Yucca leaves on a porch table, as I wanted to peel off the long, curly fibers that give the plant its specific name (Yucca schidigera, Latin for “bearing a splinter of wood,” referring to the fibers along the edges of the leaf blades).

Yucca Fibers in bouquet

Curling yucca fibers add whimsy to this bouquet of California buckwheat flowers

These fibers give wonderfully artistic accents to any bouquet, gift bow, or arrangement, so I set the leaves aside until I could harvest the fibers.

Over the course of a week, whenever my husband and I passed by the patio table, we would find several of the three-foot leaves on the ground. We were puzzled, but kept restacking the errant leaves on the table. This morning, I heard my husband break out laughing as he called to me, “Hey, Robin! Come see who is tearing into your yucca leaves!” The culprit: a cactus wren, wrestling long fibers off the leaves, sometimes following the fibers down off the table in its tug-of-war to glean coveted material for its new family’s nest in our nearby cholla.

Cactus Wren Nest - Yucca fibers in Cholla

Cactus wren nest in cholla, woven mostly with Mojave Yucca fibers

With all this homebuilding activity, it won’t be long before we see all this hard work produce a new generation of songbirds.


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White-crowns bathing

White-crowned Sparrows bathing in our wildlife pond

We know it’s really chilly outside when we see the White-crowned Sparrows bathing in the bird bath. They never seem to bathe in warm weather. But the colder it gets, the more white-crowns jump into the water and energetically bathe. It’s mind boggling.

These pint-sized travelers show up in our yard from their summer homes to the north when fall finally breaks the back on our summer heat. My coastal-grown husband, who withers in the desert heat, literally jumps for joy when he spots the first white-crown arriving in our yard each fall. We have a special celebration on that momentous day each year.

We keep track of the day the first white-crown arrives each fall and the day the last one leaves to fly back north as the weather heats up each April. In between those two dates, my husband comes alive in his excitement about the arrival of winter – keeping a fire stoked in the woodstove, stacking firewood out of the rain, simmering hearty soups on the stove, and hoping the white-crowns stay for a LONG winter’s rest.

The usual suspects hanging out at the feeder.

This is my personal blog, about my own garden, and what happens there.

Songbird Cottage signI am amazed every day at how much happens on our half-acre of High Desert property. Whether we are simply looking out the window at our bird feeders, working in our yard, or sitting on our deck watching the sunset, my husband and I get the biggest kick out of seeing the dynamics unfolding between our resident covey of a hundred quail, dozens of songbirds, rabbits, antelope ground squirrels, lizards, friendly snakes, occasional coyotes, bobcat, fox, and even hungry hawks. It’s hard to believe how much activity can be packed into such a small yard when it has various levels of “living spaces,” like a multi-story hotel, creating homes galore in ground covers, branches, and canopies of plants. Added to the backdrop of a seasonal procession of color from flowering plants, fruiting shrubs and trees, the happenings in our yard provide continual cause for delight, surprise, inspiration, and celebration.

I hope you enjoy following the fascinating cycle of life that plays out in a yard dedicated to wildlife, water-wise native plants, and other delights of a hopeless plant lover.